In the Footsteps of our Fathers Perek 4 – Mishna 3

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In the Footsteps of our Fathers

By Harav Y. Reuven Rubin Shlita

Pirkei Avos
Perek 4 – Mishna 3

You all know the type. You are at a function, and from the corner of your eye you see him coming. Like a heat-seeking missile, the fellow’s very gait tells you he is determined. You have nowhere to hide. From past experience you know that the next half hour or so is going to be spent listening to this guy’s long litany of woes.

It’s not that you don’t feel compassion for his plight. You really would like to help, but the problem is you have heard it all before. The man has bent your ear on more than one occasion, and the saddest part of it is that he never, but never, listens to you anyway.

We humans are a sociable lot. It is this that sets us off from the rest. As such, we are used to the fact that some of us are more sociable than others. In every group there will be those who seem to feel that their entire oxygen supply can only be found in your head. They will come at all hours and all places, blaming everyone for their problems and asking you to wave some magic wand and make it all go away. It wouldn’t be so bad if they would only listen to your sagely advice, but they don’t. They just use up your air supply and then venture forth to find their next victim.

We can learn so much from those around us if we but empathize and accept that we are no better.

So as you see him heading straight to you, you’re thinking, Here I am; such a warm, caring individual who has all this marvelous wisdom waiting to be shared, and all I get is this ingrate nudnik who wastes my time.

Well, let me burst your little bubble. The truth is that you are the ingrate, and yes, you are the one in the wrong. How so? Simply because you are missing the point of the entire exercise called living. A Yid’s entirety is meant to be focused on coming closer to Hashem and being able to create a higher awareness of His presence here on earth. To do so one must take every occurrence in life and look at it through the prism of spirituality. The harder this seems and the more the challenge, the greater the need to do so.

Our mishna points this out in terse yet moving terms. “He [ben Azzai] used to say: Do not despise any man and do not dismiss anything; for there is no man who does not have his hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.” At first glance this mishna could be seen as simply a warning. “Listen, dear man, you never know when the wheel will turn. That shlepper of today may well be tomorrow’s millionaire, and that old shmatta in the corner can well be a valuable antique.” True enough, but let your eye go a bit beneath the surface. This mishna is speaking at a far loftier level.

The Kohznitzer Maggid explains that the Hebrew word sha’ah, hour, also means to turn or direct. Thus the mishna can be interpreted as telling us that a person should never say, “How can I help this other fellow find his proper way to Hashem?” There is no man without his “turning,” without the potential to come closer to the Creator. In one blink of the eye his whole direction can change. The problems that besiege us all are walls that form a spiritual maze which keeps us from true menuchas hanefesh, spiritual calm. All too often we are lost in the muddle of our own fantasies. We are no less lost than the poor soul who runs from one fountain to the next seeking the well that will alleviate the agony in his painful heart. We all seek to “turn” – to find true direction in our lives. We can learn so much from those around us if we but empathize and accept that we are no better.

There is a certain arrogance that we carry. How does the old joke go? “Everyone is meshuga except you and me, and I’m not so sure about you sometimes.” Gutte Yidden used to say that every man has his hour, and if you persevere you can overcome all the barriers that stand in your way to fulfillment. You have to keep going, never giving in to despair. Your hour will come! The question is: Will you be aware of it at its arrival? When we see those who are in obvious trouble casting about for help, it is a sign that they are at least trying; they are in the battle, not having given in to despair.

There is another facet to all this. No man is an island. Every one you meet has family, friends and loved ones. Each of us means so much to someone. Dare we disparage that love in any way? Is it not our task to raise each other up in some manner, so that we can each be even better parents, spouses, friends? And if you do help another, even if only though allowing him to vent his despair, are you not really helping yourself as well?

Tzadikim often spoke of the world of make-believe, where we each conjure up images in our own minds. They meant that space where we each see ourselves as always wise, trustworthy, patient and kind. Much of what keeps us from our true potential is built upon these false impressions. If we are aware that everyone about us has his holy task, his hour, then we may well begin to see the real person who we are without having to mask our reality with so much pretentiousness. In this way we can find our own “hour,” for if not we will just slide along the highway of our existence living in a false cocoon of self-serving imagery. It is very simple to be condescending to those in need, but a spiritual life is one where we see ourselves in others.

Let us take this to the next step. The mishna tells us that “there is nothing that has does not have its place.” The Sfas Emes explains that Hashem is called Hamakom, “the Place,” for He is Omnipresent. Thus the mishna states that there is nothing without its “place” – without its bit of G-dly vitality.

This is a powerful message. We have to work hard in this throw-away society to comprehend that nothing can exist without the consistent energy of Hashem. If Hashem withdrew His essence for even a moment, everything would disappear. (Yes, even that new latest model car!)

This is not an easy concept to integrate into our actual everyday conscience. It may be easy to say in theory, but at the level of where we really exist it is difficult. However, the Sfas Emes tells us further that the more we understand that there is no place for anything outside of Hashem, the more He reveals to us the G-dly essence of all things.

The message of this mishna is one of Divine completeness. Everything is Hashem, and nothing is without His presence. We small cogs in His enormous world are vital to the workings of His spiritual kingdom. Everything has His essence, and nothing more so than those humble, seeking Yidden around us.

So the next time you see that special troubled fellow making a beeline toward you, think for one moment and ask yourself two questions: First, what can I learn from him, and second, what advice can I not only give, but embrace into my own life? He awaits his hour, and so should you.

This is no easy task, but then that’s why it needs teaching. And yes, one more thing. Then take a deep breath, calm down and good luck.

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